Public Safety Diving- It’s not a hobby, it’s a career

Our marketing department is always looking for the questions that people are asking, if someone has a question, we should provide the answer. One question they found was “Can my hobby become a career?” To find out the answer we went to our active, in the field, ERDI public safety divers. To ensure we got a well round and fair response we added some twists, the question was posed to someone that is a firefighter and one that is law enforcement. Neither of them knew, at the time, that someone else had been asked. Here are their responses.

Fire Fighter

By FF James Weber

The sun is shining, the birds are out and it’s an incredible Mother’s Day.  The whole family is together to give thanks… and then my phone rings.  I know the number and I know what it means –  somebody has drowned and the team is being called in to recover the body.  We’ve done it before and will do it again, this call is a frequent one.  Hopefully, it won’t be a child, it breaks my heart every time we have to recover a child.  We arrive on scene to discover a hysterical family grasping at straws for their little girl who wandered off and into the canal.  We suit up; entering from the last known point.  The viz is absolutely zero, it’s like diving in chocolate milk.  The muck on the bottom is about a foot thick and has the consistency of loose Jello.  I’m hoping I don’t bump into a water moccasin or snapping turtle underwater; they’d easily breach my drysuit. Thank God for the officer on the bank with a rifle looking out for curious gators.  I keep my eyes closed since I can’t see anyway and hum my favorite recovery song, Smoke on the Water.  It lets my tender know I’m still alive and lowers my apprehension.   After about 20 minutes of searching I bump into her.  Her blonde hair waves up against my mask and I grab her.  I let my tender know we have her and surface. I know from the bottom my heart, the only thing I can give them is closure – and that is why we do it.

Public Safety Diving isn’t for the timid, it’s not sport diving and it’s usually in the worst conditions (zero viz, chemicals, bodily fluids, gators, and snakes).  We don’t choose our dive sites, nor do we choose the dive time.  Frequently we find our victim by bumping into the body.  There are very few people out there that have the ability to this type of diving, but if you do, it’s very rewarding.

You can make a living doing this type of diving, but it’s usually in one of three ways; either Fire Rescue, Police, or a private team.  The first two are pretty self explanatory; the third can be quite tricky depending on needs, resources, and available personnel.  It’s definitely not a hobby, it’s a commitment not taken lightly.  Training is intense, and relentless.  We don’t dive in clear blue, warm water with awesome viz, we go in places that others would look at and think, “Not a chance”, but that’s where the calls are.  The gear is hot, restrictive and requires special training above and beyond what you would get in a sport class.  If you’re thinking about this type of diving, take a course from an instructor who performs these types of dives, sport training won’t cut it, you’ll quickly find you’re in way over your head.  While the dives can be heartbreaking, the ability to bring closure to a grieving family is worth every moment of my time.

Law Enforcement

By Sgt. G.E. (Jay) White

Following the Oxford Dictionary definition of a hobby as “An activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure”, millions of people around the world experience diving as a hobby.  From the recreational open water diver swimming in the shallows to the explorer swimming far into unmapped caves,  those involved participate for the pleasure, challenge, and enjoyment of the experience.  So if the deep, well-planned diving expedition to check out an unknown wreck is someone’s hobby, what is it about public safety diving that makes it not a hobby, but a career?

Public safety diving is not about diving but about safely carrying out an investigation underwater.  The dive conducted by the public safety dive team is just a means to get to where the work needs to done.  It is once on site that the real work of examining the scene, observing, documenting, and collecting and preserving evidence begins.  Long after the skills used to conduct a proper scene exam are completed, a PSD will find themselves occupied completing detailed notes, reports, statements and in some cases testimony.  These sometimes laborious and certainly “not-fun” requirements can be time consuming and are just as important to the operation as the actual dive is.

The public safety diver doesn’t choose where to dive, the dive site chooses them.  Because the location can vary widely from one day to the next, the PSD develops a repertoire of skills and abilities to get them to their work site.  A team may find themselves diving deep one day, current diving in a fast moving river the next, followed by a zero visibility search in contaminated water, then a dive where they find themselves spending an hour swimming on their back examining the hull of a 700 foot container ship before it heads out to sea.  While the extensive list of ERDI Operations training courses can provide someone with the knowledge and ability to conduct dives in these widely varying conditions, for the public safety diver successfully completing the course is just the beginning.  For the sake of everyone involved, each dive team member must commit to continual training on a regular basis to ensure that they remain proficient in ALL the skills they have been taught so that when they are called to duty, regardless of the location, they are mentally, skillfully, and physically prepared to go.

The public safety diver doesn’t choose when to dive.  Rarely are dive calls pre-announced, and the calls seem to come in at the most inopportune time, be it just as you are sitting down to dinner with friends, at a wedding, or even in the middle of your seven year old daughter’s birthday party.  The commitment to drop what you are doing and go on a call is often what is expected from a team.

Unlike the definition, public safety diving is rarely considered ‘pleasurable’.  Given the nature of the job, it often involves a tragedy in one form or another.  The conditions are often unfavourable or downright repugnant when dives are conducted in ditches, ponds, swamps or waters that no certified diver ever looked at and thought, “Oh I would like to dive there”.  The conditions and the job make it unpleasant.  Having said that, it is immensely rewarding and fulfilling to succeed when faced with a difficult task.

Given the expected commitment of time to train, respond to operational calls, and complete reports all at a moment’s notice far exceed what could be considered leisure time, and the job is too extensive for a hobby.  That is why most Dive Teams are affiliated on a part-time basis with local Law Enforcement or Fire/Rescue Departments  and pushes the public safety diver into the realm of a career along the same lines as a volunteer firefighter.  Fortunately most of us live in a world of relative safety where the need for many people to have a full time career as a public safety diver is rare.   Outside the full time Police or Fire Department dive teams, the full time positions that do occasionally exist on part time PS dive teams are the team leaders, those who over period of time gained the experience and confidence – both their own and the team’s – to be selected to further their PSD training by training as a Dive Supervisor and Instructor.

Being part of a public safety dive team can be a huge commitment for someone to take on and at times it will inconvenience your plans, but there is a great feeling of being part of something special, of helping others, and you will stand a little taller every time someone tells you they “would not want to do what you do” and you realize you are choosing to do something most people would be afraid to have nightmares about.

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